Anal Gland Problems in Cats: what you need to know

Anal gland disease in cats is not very common, but when they do become infected or diseased they can be a really painful problem.

Find out the causes of anal gland problems, the signs and symptoms to look out for and then the best ways to treat and prevent them in the future.

cat anal gland problems

What are anal glands

So let's start off with what anal glands are.

Anal glands, or anal sacs strictly speaking, contain a nasty, foul smelling material that empties through ducts at about the three and nine o’clock position either side of the anus. They’re used for marking territory and they generally empty when a cat goes to the toilet and defecates. Actually in cats, anal glands don't cause as much of a problem as they do in dogs and it's pretty rare for cats to get anal gland problems.

What causes cat anal gland issues?

Soft stools can lead to these problems, it can lead to the build-up of material within the anal glands and soft stools can be due to a number of reasons. It could be due to diet, inflammatory bowel disease, parasitic disease, infections…it’s a long list. Soft stools or diarrhea prevent normal expression of the anal glands by the stools not being their normal, solid consistency. This can lead to impaction of the anal glands.

Another cause of anal gland problems in cats can be inflammation in the anal area. This then effectively blocks the anal gland ducts. Again, that stops them from emptying as normal.

Anatomical reasons might also be a problem. So if the ducts are too narrow or if they’re twisted because of the way a cay has grown and developed. I'm not sure if this is a particular problem, but I do wonder certainly in dogs that, for those dogs that get repeated problems despite having nice firm stools and despite there being no outward problem, anatomy plays a role. I don't see why there's any reason that cats can’t have that issue as well although we have typically not bred them to be such wildly different in structure compared to dogs.

Finally, masses within the anal gland, so if there's a lump within the anal gland itself or next to it, that can cause problems as well. The most common type of anal gland mass is something called an adenocarcinoma. This is a malignant tumor and it's a pretty nasty type of cancer. Thankfully, anal sac masses are very rare in cats.

So that’s what can cause the anal sac material to build up, or anal gland problems to develop. Once you've got an impacted gland, then that can become infected and then can burst into the surrounding tissue. As I’m sure you can appreciate, this is incredibly painful. It causes an awful lot of inflammation and a cat will be really uncomfortable if that's the case.

Signs to look out for

What then are the signs of anal gland problems in cats starting to develop? We want to pick it up ideally before they become infected, and before they abscess. The common symptoms include scooting, kind of rubbing their bum along the ground, just like dogs. Often with cats though, it's more a chewing or licking around their back-end.

They can also be painful when they're handled, so they just don't want you to touch them or go towards their tail or their bum, and they get really sore and also they can be grumpy and unsettled. So cats will try and avoid pain wherever possible and they're going to get grumpy if they think that something's going to hurt and they're going to just change their general demeanor. So those are all signs and symptoms to look out for.

how to treat cat anal gland problems: impaction, infection and more

Treatment of anal gland issues in cats

And then how do we treat this? We can treat anal gland impaction with regular expression or just expressing the anal glands. So if they've become impacted or they've becoming full and on their way to being impacted then we can empty them before they become a problem. That's probably something that you're going to want your vet to do. It’s a fairly disgusting job. It's not particularly difficult, but only if you know what you're doing, and you can cause more damage and more harm than good if you're not sure what you're doing. So definitely take them to your vet if you've got any problems there.

We can change diet. So if we've got a problem with loose stools, we want to try and get to the bottom of that. So we can maybe switch to a hypoallergenic diet that will definitely help or will most likely help in the case of inflammatory bowel disease. We can increase the fiber in the diet so that can be with pumpkin, with Metamucil and that kind of thing. But again, definitely with any diet change, especially if we're doing it for a medical reason, discuss that with your vet before either changing the diet or adding anything to your diet because those solutions definitely aren't going to be appropriate for every cat. For example, if your cat has got kidney disease, then we don't want to necessarily be changing them onto a different high fiber diet.

If the stools are persistently loose then there are other tests we can do. So we can do stool tests, sending them off to the laboratory, looking under the microscope, that kind of thing. It might even be that we need to take gut biopsies. This is certainly not common but if we're looking for an inflammatory bowel disease or even a neoplasia or cancer, then that might be something that we need to do.

So the bottom line is if your cat has got persistently loose stools, then there are other investigations that might need to take place.

And then finally the last kind of solution if you like, for anal gland problems, and especially a cat who has repeat anal gland problems despite trying everything, would be surgical removal of those anal glands. They don't provide any vital function that the body can't do without, so we can remove them.

There is a very low risk of developing fecal incontinence after anal gland removal surgery. That is a very low risk so I wouldn't be overly worried about that. It's something to bear in mind though because it does happen from time to time. But surgery is one way to completely eliminate and remove the ongoing future risk of anal gland impaction and anal gland abscesses in cats (or dogs).

The above is a transcript taken from “The Dr Alex Answers Show”.

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